Virtual wards and how the independent sector can enable their success

Thought leadership Virtual ward, Partnerships, Quality & governance 31st Aug 2022

Healthcare Support WorkerFollowing their success during the Covid-19 pandemic, NHS England has set challenging targets to roll-out virtual wards across the country. Jill Ireland, our Chief Executive and Clinical Director agrees with NHSE/I guidelines that integrated care systems should be looking to work in partnership with the independent sector. Jill argues that the independent sector has a lot to offer and that working with a specialist provider of hospital at home services is an excellent way for them to deliver successful services.

Covid-19 put almost intolerable pressure on the country, the NHS and communities; but one of the unexpected benefits of the pandemic was the realisation that many more patients can be cared for at home.

The pandemic provided an opportunity to try out new ways of working, and we saw the rapid roll-out of virtual multidisciplinary teams, virtual clinics and consultations, remote monitoring and virtual wards.

As the health and care system looks to recover and reset, NHS England and Improvement is looking to build on these developments to address some of the challenges posed by the huge backlog of elective care.

More than 6 million people are now waiting for treatment in England, and the list is rising by 100,000 people per month. With the hospital beds that are available under enormous pressure, NHS England is looking to virtual wards to create additional capacity.

Virtual ward targets, guidance, and funding

Virtual wards will only be successful if they combine partnership working, technology, and skilled clinical teams.

  NHSE/I has set a target for every integrated care system to create 40-50 virtual ward beds per 100,000 people in their population.

Guidance in April set out ‘enablers for success’ that stressed ICSs should not use virtual wards as an extension of traditional, community nursing services, which tend to support people with long-term conditions.

Instead, it said virtual wards should be used to provide hospital at home services; either ‘step up’ care (to prevent admissions to hospital) or ‘step down’ care (to support earlier discharge).

‘Enablers for success’ also advised ICSs to work in partnership with the independent sector to secure the skills and technology required and outlined how to bid for central funding.

NHSE/I is making £200 million available for virtual wards this year from its Service Development Fund on a match-funded basis. There will be an additional £250 million next year to test out ideas and after that it’s expected that these services will become ‘business as usual’.

The case for finding an expert partner

Virtual wards are an emerging space, which makes this guidance useful. It explains what NHSE/I means by ‘virtual ward’ (and what it doesn’t), sets out some clear expectations around the involvement of the independent sector, and establishes a clear direction of travel.

For HomeLink Healthcare, this is exciting. We were formed seven years ago to deliver Hospital at Home services and already run virtual wards in partnership with commissioners and Trusts in London and the East of England.

Despite this, we are sometimes challenged that NHS organisations can do this themselves. In some cases, of course, they can. However, as the ‘enablers’ guidance makes clear, virtual wards are being set up to provide additional capacity; not to stretch existing resources even more thinly.

Also, nursing acutely ill patients at home requires skill and experience. HomeLink Healthcare’s teams are built around clinicians with a backgrounds in both acute and community care, who are also experienced in handling the challenges of delivering clinical care in the home.

In addition, we have developed some really good reporting capabilities. We can report a suite of KPIs in almost real time, so commissioners have complete transparency about what we are doing and how we are doing it.

More than 6 million people are now waiting for treatment in England, and the list is rising by 100,000 people per month.

More capacity, better outcomes for patients

When the news broke about this big expansion of virtual wards, there was a criticism of the idea in the press and concern from professional bodies.

There was a feeling that patients should be in hospital and that delivering hospital-level care at home poses too great a risk to staff and patients alike.

It’s true that this model is not suitable for everybody. However, we work with our NHS partners to risk assess the patients who are referred to our services.

We know that what HomeLink Healthcare does is valued by patients and relatives, thanks to the feedback we receive through our Patient Experience questionnaire. We also have evidence that our patients can recover faster when they are treated in their own home than they would have done in hospital.

After all, few people want to spend time on a hospital ward. Most would prefer to be in their own environment, as long as they are well-supported.

So, I think that as we see virtual wards rolled out, we will see fewer challenges of this kind – as long as ICSs follow emerging best practice and deliver these new models of care in a safe and effective way.

No going back?

There are some pitfalls that could still derail this new policy. NHSE/I is funding virtual wards for the next two-years, so there is a danger that ICSs could see this as a ‘pilot’ project, when our experience is the best results come from running virtual wards at scale.

ICSs could also see virtual wards as a technology challenge, rather than a service redesign challenge. The ‘enablers’ guidance says virtual ward services should be ‘tech enabled’ – but they cannot be purely technology driven.

As the guidance itself says, virtual wards will only be successful if they combine partnership working, technology, and skilled clinical teams.

The technology required to support virtual wards is developing all the time and giving health and care professionals new telemetry to work with; and from a professional perspective, this is a very appealing way of working. In addition utlising technology can maximise face to face time with patients.

When many health and care organisations are struggling to recruit and retain staff, our teams welcome the challenge of delivering hospital-level care in patients’ homes.

The virtual ward model offers an opportunity for revisioning the healthcare model and I cannot imagine that the health and care system will return to how they were before Covid. There is a big opportunity to rethink how hospitals, community delivery and the patient journey work.

So, over the course of the next six to eight months, I think we will see virtual ward models refined. We will see evaluations conducted, so we create a test and learning environment.

We will see forward-thinking ICSs developing innovative partnerships with independent providers. And we will see that the end point is to deliver virtual wards at scale. NHSE/I has started an evolution, rather than a revolution; but this is the future.

This is the beginning of the change and we need to think about how much further we can go with these models.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Work with us

Find out more about the process of commissioning HomeLink Healthcare to set up a virtual ward.

Get in touch

To speak to a member of our team about virtual wards, call us on (020) 3137 5370 or contact us. You can tell us about your situation, and we can tell you more about our experience of virtual wards and how we might be able to help you.

“You did everything exceptionally and allowed me to leave hospital six weeks earlier than planned because of the service you provided.

THANK YOU!!”

Patient feedback

“I am so grateful to have been referred to HomeLink Healthcare, they have really helped me get back on my feet. If I had stayed in the hospital I would not have achieved everything I have done”

Patient feedback

“I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart, and let you know that the work you do makes a true difference to people’s lives and wellbeing.”

Dr Vassiliki Bravis Consultant, Imperial College London

“Exceptional, amazing service with highly qualified staff. I felt confident at all times that staff knew how to deal with my picc line and my four times-a-day antibiotics was made easier by such lovely caring and compassionate staff”

Patient feedback

“The visiting therapist took her time with me, was always providing encouragement and without that I wouldn’t be at the point I am today.”

Patient feedback

Related resources

Thought leadership

Release in-patient bed capacity this winter with Hospital at Home services

Virtual ward, Reablement & physio, Partnerships

hospitals are increasingly looking towards Hospital at Home services to free up beds ahead of winter. Find out how we can help with seasonal resilience,

Read more
Thought leadership

NEW White Paper: Virtual Wards – Achieving the Ambition, Delivering the Benefits

Hospital at Home, Virtual ward

How well is the NHS doing against its ambitions in terms of capacity and occupancy? What needs to be done? And what does good look like?

Read more
Thought leadership

Virtual wards: tech matters, but so do people

Virtual ward, Partnerships

Emily Wells is an award winning digital health information expert. Here, she outlines her thoughts on how to develop a successful virtual ward, drawing on her Trust’s experience of working on new care pathways with HomeLink Healthcare.

Read more
Thought leadership

Chief Clinical Officer presented at RCNi virtual wards webinar in February

Virtual ward, Partnerships

Watch the video of Jane Tobin talking about the nurses role in the set up and delivery of a virtual ward.

Read more
Thought leadership

Virtual wards and how the independent sector can enable their success

Virtual ward, Partnerships, Quality & governance

Jill Ireland, CEO and Clinical Director of HomeLink Healthcare discusses virtual wards and how they're evolving.

Read more

Got a question? Contact us on (020) 3137 5370

Join our mailing list

Get the latest news, case studies and opinion pieces

I agree(Required)